Are Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.

Year-End Dear Smartphone

On a pink background rests an alarm clock, so it forms the number zero. Then 2020 is spelled out. The quote says :"year's end is neither an and nor beginning but a going on."
Year-end Dear Smartphone ( image: EdSys)

The year-end Dear Smartphone column in 2019 was about shopping online and holiday pandemonium. It was a prophetic post: “Maybe a future Christmas will put less emphasis on running between stores and accumulating presents and place more weight on taking holiday images, sharing symbols of the season, or just staying home.”

Covid did for Dear Smartphone what Keywords could never accomplish. During 2020 there was a cultural reckoning with smartphones and digital devices. We all became more aware of how we are connected at the hip by them.

 In 2020 staying safe, sane, and sage required us to manage our devices with more insight. 

March 3rd, began a new era of questions and postings, on topics ranging from the transmission of germs to the transmission of social information.

Equity and Access

At the beginning of the Covid virus, it became apparent that people were turning to the Internet, but not everyone had access.  As schools shut down, students from less affluent households lacked the ability to attend online classes. So, voices were raised about digital equity and access. Older people had similar concerns. Many lacked high speed access as well as the knowledge of how to find friends and classes online or trust the grocery order. 

Further into March and April, those blessed with Internet access complained that being online all day made them grouchy and tired. Readers began to query about helping kids moderate digital time and develop other interests. There were equal queries about supporting older people, and getting them up to speed with apps, online payments and Apple watches. 

Not surprisingly, the dual topics of digital etiquette and digital mental health rose to the top this year as readers spent more and more time on their devices.  Someone asked “Is my smartphone making me sick?

Zoom, Ablaze, More….

Dear Smartphone offered commentary on using Zoom, Snapchat, Robinhood, TikTok, and the now defunct Quibi.  Questions about Zoom, not surprisingly, led the pack. One column, which led to a graphic Instagram post, asked whether it is safe to ‘Zoom Zoom’ in the car (the answer is No No unless parked).

In August and September, there was a telecomm pivot as California forest fires blazed close to home. Dear Smartphone advised readers of the emergency links published in local papers. There was a reminder that there are no telecom safety nets. Landline phones can fail at the central office, cordless phones depend on electricity or batteries, and mobile phones need the relay towers to be intact.

The Cancelled…

It is noteworthy to consider what did not take place in 2020, the blazes that did not happen. 2020 did not turn out to be the year of privacy. Before the year began, safety protocols were supposed to be set in place for data and sharing, but they flew out the window with the pandemic. In order to get tested for the virus or help monitor the spread, smartphone users opted to provide location and social data. Even more worrisome, some phones had operating systems that defaulted to Bluetooth and GPS for the sake of Covid tracing.

2020 also cancelled the idea that you could protect kids from phones until a certain age. It became clear that digital devices were integrated into their daily lives, like seeds inside a fruit. Although we are not there yet, children need to be schooled in digital literacy- think of it like a driver’s license, you guide young people with instruction and supervision until they know the rules of the road, engage safely, and are responsible out and about. 

Looking OldeR, Looking Forward…

At the other end of the age spectrum, 2020 also made it clear that older people need to have digital tools to interact and stay connected. Voice activated devices could be their key for transformational changes in keeping social, ordering goods, online classes, and banking. Today, Siri and Alexa provide some assistance, but being nimbler with phones could be an unrealized asset to help older generations stay cognitively active and alert. 


2021 opens the next chapter for Dear Smartphone and its readers. The pandemic will wind down and we will settle into healthier and gainful relationships with each other as well as with our devices. If 2020 was the year in which everything, including Covid went viral, 2021 will be the year in which we learn to harbor digital immunities.

Alzheimers and Smartphones. Friends or Foe?

A black and white cartoon of an older woman holding a smartphone in one hand and a cane in the other.
Alzheimers and Smartphones. Friends or Foe?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Would a smartphone help my Aunt who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease? Right now she has a landline and a flip phone but I am considering giving her my old smartphone instead of trading it in. Then I can send her pictures and images, plus plug her into more social media. The rest of my family doesn’t see it this way. They think the smartphone will just make her feel worse. I am wondering what you would do and if Alzheimers and smartphones make sense together? Cecelia, Boston

Dear Cecilia: Thanks for the useful question. Many people are in your shoes wondering if digital tools can improve the care for older adults. I would begin with a face-value assessment to evaluate if your Aunt is smartphone ready. Does she have the mental faculties to follow digital commands? Does she have good-enough eyesight to see text on a small screen, and is she free from palsy or hand -shakes? As you seek out information, keep in mind that I am not a medical doctor and you should ask a gerontologist to weigh in. There’s actually an app, or a purported app, that can help doctor’s spot signs of Alzheimer’s.

Friendly Smartphone!

Assuming your Aunt passes your face-value test, try communicating with her on a regular basis, using the smartphone. Since social isolation and loneliness often accompany the decline in memory loss, keeping in regular touch might be a healthy intervention.  You might text her, send pictures, or try to engage her on Facebook. Here is an academic paper that prescribes both companionship and memory training over the smartphone to slow down the cognitive decline. Perhaps you can tap your personal knowledge of your Aunt’s social groups and family’s stories to help retain connections and memories.  

If your Aunt is at an early stage of dementia, you could also use the phone, or even better a smart watch, to map her spatial movements. This might help if she’s not supposed to drive a car or gets lost when she goes out. You can set up a “geo-fence” alert so that you don’t have to monitor her whereabouts all the time.

Over-Friendly Smartphone…

At a later stage of dementia, having a smartphone, actually any phone, could be worrisome. As the disease progresses, your Aunt might get lonely or paranoid, and hence more susceptible to soothing messages from an outside caller. There are evil telemarketers and the like who take advantage of people who are not in full command of their mental faculties. 

I often lecture on taking the keys away from older people when they are no longer capable drivers- and can happily point to rideshare as a substitute.  If you need to take away the phone and electronic devices, I imagine there will be tech-backups you want to explore, like a voice activated 911 device, blocking of online accounts and passwords, and ‘beeper reminders’ to take medications. I hope all goes well for you and your Aunt.